The Woman Who Dominated Horse Racing

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Professional horse riding, more so than most sports, requires a certain physique. Jockeys are shorter and lighter than the average person, so horses will be able to ride at their top speeds with as little excess weight as possible. It seems like a sport primed for, oh, I don't know, a certain sex that is genetically smaller and slighter than the other? But for whatever reason, there's a dearth of ladies in the professional horse racing world. Rosie Napravnik, the woman who made room for feminism in horse racing, is trying to change that.

Napravnik has been on horses since she was a kid. The New Jersey native got her professional start riding in Maryland, where trainer Richard Small — known for giving female jockeys a shot — took her on. When she started out, Small encouraged Napravnik, whose full name is Anna Rose, to go by A.R. instead, so people wouldn't assume that she was a woman. She quickly proved her chops as a rider in Maryland, sweeping all four meets at Pimlico and Laurel Park in 2006.

Napravnik set herself apart from other jockeys not for being a woman, but for her determination. “A lot of people think that I am stuck up, quiet and grumpy or mad or upset all the time,” she told the New York Racing Association Riders Up in an interview. “I’m really just focused. It’s absolutely, probably a big guard I put up. I have to be as tough as the guys, and I am. I do this every day with them, and I don’t want anyone to mess with me. I don’t take anybody’s crap. ... I was born that way.”

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Despite her grit, Napravnik did face some pushback in the sport, in which only 10 percent of jockeys are women. Men purposefully pinned her in during races or bumped into her while riding, but Napravnik persevered. And it was perhaps that lack of equality that eventually led Napravnik to embrace her side gig as a role model for little girls. "It was a big adjustment to do that because I thought that wasn't part of my job description," she told the Guardian, "that I'm just here to ride horses. It just came about. It was uncomfortable at first... but when you see the reaction and the impact it has on other people then I kind of accepted it as my position and it made me feel great."

Napravnik has retired from jockeying and is now an assistant trainer to her husband, Joe Sharp. But she slid out of the saddle as one of the greatest jockeys in the sport. She was the first woman to win the the Louisiana Derby and the Kentucky Oaks. She was also the highest-place woman finisher in the Preakness Stakes, in which she took third place in 2013, and the Kentucky Derby, where she snagged fifth place in the same year. Additionally, she is the only woman to have ridden in all three Triple Crown races.

Napravnik never achieved the ultimate goal in the horse racing world: winning the Kentucky Derby. But she's paved the way for women to snatch the roses in the future. She'll watch this year's derby from the box as the horse she and her husband have been training, Girvin, will contend for the title.